Twenty20, or T20, cricket is considered a batsman’s game, with batting-friendly pitches designed to entertain crowds with fours and sixes. Most teams have also adopted a hyper-aggressive approach to batting of late, taking a cue from England by continuing to attack even when wickets fall. Coaches and captains back risk-taking more than anchoring, and a higher tolerance for mistakes gives batsmen a long rope.
But the 2022 T20 World Cup in Australia, starting 16 October, promises to bring smiles back to the faces of bowlers. Tall, fast bowlers in particular will enjoy hitting the deck to extract bounce and movement with the new ball at most of the venues. Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth have pacy pitches, while Sydney and Hobart may prove helpful to spinners. Average first innings scores in T20 games have been below 170 at these venues this year, except Adelaide, which has the best batting wicket in Australia. So it will be interesting to see how far gung-ho batting tactics will take teams at this World Cup.
Which are the teams with the best bowling units to exploit these conditions? And which are the ones with the batting strength to counter them? Whatever the outcome, we can look forward to a better balance between bat and ball, making the games more interesting. Playing on dead tracks where 200- plus scores are routinely posted and chased down isn’t much fun any more.
The tournament will begin with qualifying matches between eight teams, four of which will join the eight pre-qualified teams in the Super 12, divided into two groups of six each. The main show will begin on 22 October, with a clash between hosts and defending champions Australia and arch rivals New Zealand in Sydney. Lounge dissects the squads of the pre-qualified teams, as well as a couple of traditional heavyweights like the West Indies and Sri Lanka, who have to go through the qualifiers.
Australia: Aaron’s Heel
The defending champions’ Achilles’ heel may well be captain Aaron Finch. He has been in such bad form that he opted out of ODIs (One Day Internationals) to let Australia groom another opener for next year’s ODI World Cup. In a recent T20 game against the West Indies, he dropped down to the middle order, suggesting that the hosts could go for either Mitchell Marsh or Cameron Green as David Warner’s opening partner.
The defending champions have a formidable fast bowling unit in Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa provides a useful counterpoint to the pace battery. Wicketkeeper-batsman Matthew Wade, who was about to retire last year but became a World Cup hero at Dubai instead, is in the best form of his life. But the X-factor this time could be the hard-hitting Tim David, who was fast-tracked into the Aussie side from Singapore.
Australia have dropped down to No.5 in the T20 team ranking. But they have a knack for getting their ducks in a row for World Cups and remain favourites to retain the trophy at home.
New Zealand: No Further
They came tantalisingly close to winning the 2019 ODI World Cup in London. It took a throw from a fielder ricocheting off Ben Stokes’ bat to deny the Kiwis and give England the title. Last year, they were unlucky to lose the toss in the T20 World Cup final in Dubai, where dew helped Australia coast to a victory. It almost seems like the gods have ordained that for the Kiwis it will be “thus far and no further”.
Will their fortunes change this time? They are currently No.6 in the T20 team ranking, and, therefore, unlikely contenders. Their pace duo of Trent Boult and Tim Southee are both older and skipper Kane Williamson appears to have lost his mojo, hampered by a persistent elbow niggle. Another blow was all-rounder Daryl Mitchell fracturing his thumb in a tri-series tournament at home, just two weeks before the World Cup. Mitchell was the hero of New Zealand’s triumph over England in last year’s World Cup semi-final, with an unbeaten 72.
Another player who played a key role in that semi-final, left-handed batsman Devon Conway, will have to take the lead this time. He missed the final last year with an injured hand.
England: Team in Transition
ODI world champions England will begin their campaign against Afghanistan in Perth, in the second game of 22 October. The world’s bounciest track will favour England’s pacers more than the Afghan spinners and England’s new skipper, Jos Buttler, will relish the ball coming on to his bat.
But England are a team in transition after the Eoin Morgan era. Jonny Bairstow’s freakish leg injury—while playing golf—has removed one of their battering rams. On the other hand, all-rounder Ben Stokes is back in the squad, after retiring from ODI cricket earlier this year. He may well have to reprise his heroics from the 2019 ODI World Cup to take England into the semi-finals.
The left-arm pace of Reece Topley, the raw speed of Mark Wood and leg-spin of Adil Rashid will bolster the bowling. But the X-factor may be England’s new opener. Hard-hitting batsman Alex Hales has come in from the cold, as a replacement for Bairstow, after being discarded in 2019 for using recreational drugs. Another contender is hard-hitting Phil Salt, who had a terrific series in Pakistan. Whoever partners Buttler, we can expect fireworks at the top from England.
Afghanistan: Beyond Winning Hearts
That Afghanistan pre-qualified for the Super 12 is already a win for a young team handicapped by the political situation at home. The precocious talent of leg-spinner Rashid Khan and the indomitable spirit that the Afghans bring to the field win hearts at every tournament. The question is whether they can win more than that.
Although known mainly for their unconventional spinners, they do have a string of pacers who can work up a head of steam and enjoy the conditions in Australia. Their batsmen don’t mind having a go either, with little respect for the bigger reputations of their opponents. Afghanistan remain a dangerous side that are capable of an upset or two.
India: Moment of Truth
The big game for fans from the subcontinent will be on 23 October in Melbourne, between arch rivals India and Pakistan. It’s the moment of truth for India’s new skipper, Rohit Sharma, and new coach, Rahul Dravid, who have tried different permutations and combinations in the lead-up to the World Cup. Their strategic call to groom a set of medium pacers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harshal Patel and Arshdeep Singh, instead of taller, faster bowlers who can bowl at 145 kmph or more, will be tested on Australian tracks. India’s failure to reach the Asia Cup final recently, while losing to both Pakistan and Sri Lanka along the way, was mainly due to extravagant death overs from their medium pacers.
The absence of pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah, due to a recurrent back injury, will be severely felt. His likely replacement is Mohammed Shami but he is recovering from a bout of covid-19. Besides, Shami never figured in India’s T20 plans after the 2021 T20 World Cup, despite his role in helping Gujarat Titans win the Indian Premier League (IPL) title this year.
Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal had a great IPL season but has come in thereafter for a lot of stick on wickets less conducive to spin. Left-arm spinner Axar Patel, who has replaced the injured Ravindra Jadeja, and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin will fancy their chances of taking wickets with catches in the deep on the big Aussie grounds. Historically, however, finger-spinners have rarely been match winners Down Under.
In contrast, the batting has been humming, with Rohit Sharma leading from the front in risk-taking. India’s powerplay strike rate this year has been top-notch. The resurgence of all-rounder Hardik Pandya, the 360-degree batting of Suryakumar Yadav, and signs of revival at long last in Virat Kohli’s form augur well. The preference for finisher Dinesh Karthik over Rishabh Pant, especially after the latter had such a magnificent Test tour to Australia last year, is an iffy call. The question is if there’s enough talent in that batting order to compensate for weaknesses in the bowling department. Watch out for Hardik Pandya reproducing his IPL magic.
Pakistan: Top Heavy
Pakistan’s openers, wicket-keeper Mohammad Rizwan and skipper Babar Azam, are ranked No.1 and No.3, respectively, among T20 batsmen currently, with India’s Suryakumar Yadav at No.2.
The openers have won many a game for Pakistan, especially while chasing, but the team appears over-reliant on the duo. The middle order is inexperienced, which sometimes makes the openers conservative. This contributed to a home series loss to England just before the World Cup. But two spinners in the World Cup squad who are also handy with the bat—Shadab Khan and Mohammad Nawaz—provide batting depth to free up the openers.
The likely unavailability of their tall, left-arm pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi, who is recovering from injury, is a setback. But Pakistan have always had a good crop of genuine fast bowlers. Haris Rauf, Naseem Shah and Mohammad Hasnain will relish bowling at India in their first game in Melbourne. After knocking India out of last year’s T20 World Cup and last month’s Asia Cup, Azam’s men will want to make it three big scalps in a row. The bowler to watch will be 19-year-old Naseem Shah, who can hurl 150 kmph thunderbolts with accuracy.
South Africa: Bavuma Dilemma
India’s other main challenger in Group 2 will be South Africa. Although India thrashed the Proteas in a recent home series, the conditions will be very different when they face off on the bouncy Perth track. Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Wayne Parnell, and possibly Marco Jansen, have the pace and height to exploit that wicket.
South Africa have a dangerous middle order, with newcomers Rilee Rossouw and Tristan Stubbs joining David Miller in scoring big runs at a fast clip. The problem is at the top, where Quinton de Kock is still regaining his form, and opening partner Temba Bavuma is in a horror run after returning from injury. Even before that, his strike rate was below par for modern T20 cricket. There are other batsmen in form who can replace him but the tricky part is that Bavuma is the captain.
Bangladesh: Team in Disarray
All-rounder Shakib Al Hasan is the best-known and most accomplished player from Bangladesh. But he has been in and out of the team, either because of injury or when he opted out. He has been at loggerheads with the administrators but is back as captain for the World Cup. Mahmudullah, who led the T20 side from 2019, was sacked in July after poor performances. Both Mahmudullah and former skipper Mushfiqur Rahman have been let go.
They are in a strong Group 2 with India, Pakistan and South Africa and will struggle to mount a challenge unless the team gels together, as it did at the 2015 ODI World Cup, also in Australia.
West Indies: B Team
It’s striking how players from the West Indies shine in T20 leagues around the world but their team languishes near the bottom of the rankings. When you take a closer look and see that the likes of Andre Russell, Sunil Narine and Shimron Hetmyer aren’t in the World Cup squad, you realise that off-field issues have pulled down the two-time T20 world champions. What a pity!
Still, the Nicholas Pooran-led side can draw upon emerging talent to challenge the best in the world. First they have to get past Scotland, Ireland and Zimbabwe to enter the Super 12 stage.
Sri Lanka: Asia Cup Champions
It’s ironic that Sri Lanka won the Asia Cup just last month, beating India and Pakistan, but they have to qualify for the Super 12 at the World Cup. Administrative and economic problems in the island nation had hit Sri Lankan cricket hard. But the team is resurgent under skipper Dasun Shanaka and can be expected to prevail over the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates and Namibia to get into the Super 12.
Once there, the likes of leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga and hard-hitter Bhanuka Rajapaksa—all familiar names in the IPL—can throw a spanner in the works of the pre-qualified teams. Ultimately, this is what makes World Cups so much more interesting than any bilateral series. A team needs the staying power to overcome a variety of challenges and make it to the top spot.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.